Hope for Houlton’s economy, National job numbers disappoint

14 years ago

By Elna Seabrooks
Staff Writer

    HOULTON — Some of the latest economic indicators for Maine are starting to tilt up slightly, even though the latest government figures revealed a jump in the national jobless numbers with lower than anticipated job growth. National unemployment ticked up unexpectedly from 9.6 percent to 9.8 percent according to the Labor Department. Its Friday report on November unemployment demonstrated that the country’s economic recovery is, at best, still limping along.
    With a seasonally unadjusted jobless rate hovering at 9.2 percent, Houlton is below the national average of 9.8, but still higher than Aroostook County as a whole at 8.1 percent. Compare those statistics with Presque Isle’s unemployment rate of 7.8 percent and it shows that Houlton is feeling the pinch of a tight economy.
    However, Jon McLaughlin, executive director of the Southern Aroostook Development Corporation, said he thinks, when it comes to Houlton, “it’s stabilized right now and we should see a little bit of upturn in the next year.” He pointed out that “revenues from excise taxes are up which is a good sign.”
    Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, the country is at risk of breaking an unflattering record — the longest streak of unemployment over 9 percent in the post-World War II era that was set back in the 1980s.
Houlton in familiar territory
    Town Manager Doug Hazlett said even though Houlton escaped a wholesale loss of retail business as well as the real estate crash that crushed other parts of the country, the unemployment numbers are high. “We never had the massive, substantial economic turndown that a lot of other places had,” Hazlett said. “Our unemployment rate certainly did climb, but not as dramatically as other places. The fact is that we had a higher than average unemployment rate at the beginning of the recession. We didn’t suffer as badly as other places. But, we weren’t as well off as other places.”
    Hazlett acknowledged the painful loss of manufacturing jobs resulting from layoffs like the ones at building materials producer Louisiana-Pacific. Another national employer, BurrellesLuce, the news clipping service, completely closed its Houlton operation in 2009 after months of shortened hours and layoffs. Even though Houlton’s job losses may not be as widespread or as deep as in other places, Hazlett said “it’s not what it should be. I would like to see the town’s job picture look a lot brighter and hopefully when economic conditions improve and local companies begin to hire, that will happen.”
Signs of hope in 2011
    According to McLaughlin, a national retail operation could bring some relief to Houlton if things go as planned with a groundbreaking in early spring. “It’s not one of those big box stores. But, it could bring 25-30 jobs to Houlton,” said McLaughlin who is not at liberty to reveal the corporation’s name. If the deal does go through, it could put a dent into the disappointing local unemployment numbers.
    Some of the areas where chronic unemployment hit hardest are seeing the earliest signs of some sort of relief. However, even with production and output moving up nationwide, there have been no substantial gains in the country’s job growth.
    While some localities are on the rise in Maine and other parts of the country, Glenn Mills, director of economic research at the Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research, said “with manufacturing declining for two to three decades, there simply are not enough jobs.” Mills added a proviso — any unanticipated event, could tip the scales in either direction. For example, he cited the potential for economic impact if a company hires or lays off a significant number of workers. He also stated that some job sectors in northern Maine have been particularly hard hit like the paper and logging industries while the country’s auto industry has been in the beginning of a recovery mode.      
Recovery will take time
    A November report by the Maine Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission documented that the state is moving into positive territory for the first time since April 2008. And, a new survey by the Federal Reserve, found that factory output is driving economic growth in some areas with auto manufacturing propelling many of the positive indicators.
    Gov. John E. Baldacci released a statement before Thanksgiving saying that Maine’s economy is showing signs of growth. “Companies in Maine are rebounding and profits are improving, especially for large, multinational corporations. While job creation is still lagging, Maine’s unemployment level is dropping. There are still too many people out of work, but at least the unemployment rate is heading in the right direction.” He also credited cooperation in Augusta for Maine’s improved outlook.
    Getting back to the 2007 levels will not be easy according to Mills. “Real recovery is a long way off,” he said, adding that “getting back to the pre-recession levels will be a long slog.”